We love to talk about the unintended consequences of others’ technological innovations. We document the air pollution and traffic congestion accompanying automobile dependence, the surrender of personal privacy in order to gain online convenience, and the political violence abetted by social media algorithms optimized to generate advertising revenue.
Founders of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) explicitly addressed unintended consequences of technological development.
Unintended consequences are intrinsic to the human condition, as Shakespeare’s Puck delights to remind us. Unintended consequences are frequently objects of systematic inquiry. Merton, in 1936, notes that unanticipated consequences can be positive or negative, and identifies ignorance, error, willful ignorance, paradoxical values, and self-defeating predictions as key sources . Luft and Ingham, in 1955, tell us to think relationally about what is known and unknown to us and others, in order to distinguish among blind spots, hidden features, and truly unknown unknowns . Morgan and Henrion, in 1990, distinguish among statistical variation, subjective judgment, linguistic imprecision, variability, inherent randomness, disagreement, and approximation as sources of uncertainty about consequences . Stirling, in 2010, asserts that both outcomes and likelihoods may be problematic, thus contrasting risk, uncertainty, ambiguity, and ignorance . Even the Harvard Business Review joins the fun, in 2021, directing managers to “elevate consideration of unintended consequences from the outset, orient corporate governance around mitigating unintended consequences, and partner with regulators to create accountability” .
Founders of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) explicitly addressed unintended consequences of technological development. The first issue of the newsletter that evolved into this magazine sought, in 1972, better means for “predicting and evaluating the impact of technology on society” . The magazine has since published many such articles, for example, when a 2016 issue devoted its cover story to the important distinction between unintended and unanticipated consequences .
Unintended consequences of technological development matter in practice and thus are not just of academic interest.
Unintended consequences of technological development matter in practice and thus are not just of academic interest. Practicing engineers and scientists are the ones who make the technological changes that impact the real world. They also receive the blowback when things do not go as planned. SSIT would do well to spark constructive and practical discussion about managing unintended consequences. We are already doing much intellectual work in this space, but we can do more to connect with practice. Here are a few ideas.
- SSIT chapters provide powerful platforms for connecting with practitioners and students. Thoughtful volunteers could organize local conversations about salient examples of unintended consequences.
- SSIT Distinguished Lecturers could virtually visit chapter and section meetings to share insights that get discussions going on unintended consequences.
- SSIT conferences could host pre-organized, multi-paper sessions that dive deeply into particular examples of unintended consequences; and then take these shows on the road to other IEEE societies’ technical conferences, either virtually or in person.
- This magazine could ask authors to include a “takeaways for practice” section in articles on unintended consequences.
- IEEE Transactions on Technology and Society could solicit articles that not only problematize practice but also prescribe constructive solutions to the problem of unintended consequences.
SSIT would do well to spark constructive and practical discussion about managing unintended consequences.
SSIT does not currently have an education committee, but we should create one to help package our wonderful contributions into convenient forms. We could introduce user-friendly versions of systematic frameworks for constructively investigating whether specific innovations will have unintended consequences. For example:
- Are there relevant historical analogies from which we can learn? What are the limits of analogizing?
- How do our understandings of economic, social, and political system dynamics help us predict the systemic effects of widespread deployment of an innovation?
- How does a fine-grained appreciation of the dynamics of social practices suggest how to unbundle social meanings and human competencies from old technologies and successfully rebundle them with new technologies?
- What can we learn from engaging in reflective engineering practice? How can we remember to look back and assess our own work periodically?
- Are there usable frameworks for moral reasoning about professional practice?
Each of these frameworks has a literature and is share-able and useful. Each allows practitioners to act constructively and not merely feel guilty for unleashing unintended consequences on the world. Let us empower creative technologists to think through the potential positive and negative effects of their innovations.
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